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Social Entrepreneurship as Critical Agency: A study of Rural Internet kiosks

Nimmi Rangaswamy

Abstract— My paper looks at rural internet kiosks as small businesses run by owners/operators who display good entrepreneurial spirit and skills that match kiosk offerings to local needs, creating opportunities in constrained commercial environments.

Kiosk operators display enough imagination to keep businesses afloat recasting information technologies to accommodate the growing demand for image /visual consumption. We argue for considering the rural internet kiosk not simply as an information booth but as entrepreneurial space to tap several commercial possibilities.

Index Terms ICT, Rural internet kiosks, Ethnography, Entrepreneurship.


The paper looks at rural internet kiosk operators (henceforth KO) as bearers of entrepreneurial spirit. Their skills match kiosk offerings to local needs, creating opportunities in constrained commercial environments.

There is widespread hope that information and communication technologies (ICTs) will support economic and social development in the rural areas of the developing world, by supporting  participation in global markets; promoting political accountability; improving delivery of basic services; and enhancing local development opportunities (WSIS, 2003). How does this enthusiasm around ICT for development equip and empower developing regions and communities to focus on local needs and the socio- economic contexts in which development processes supposedly play out. Thus it is important to evolve an understanding of the ‘local’ and what specific communities actually want and will pay for.

Based on our studies of KO’s in rural India, we will argue that imagination around ICT needs to go beyond its singular role as a developmental tool, to address a broader spectrum of needs in the complex socio-cultural world of

Manuscript received on April 3, 2006.  The author would like to thank Dr Jonathan Donner, Dr Kentaro Toyama, both with Microsoft Research Lab India Private Limited, Rahul Srivastava, The Research Forum, Goa, for valuable comments and editorial suggestions, Nirmala Hande, Santosh Darekar for field ethnography and data collection.  This material is based upon work supported by  Microsoft Research Lab India Private Limited, "Scientia", 196/36, 2nd Main Sadashivnagar, Bangalore -560 080 India

Nimmi Rangaswamy is an Associate Researcher with Microsoft Research Labs, India. phone: +91 9819049423 e-mail: nimmir@ Microsoft.com

rural communities. Ethnographic evidence reveal ICT’s as commercial tools bringing profits and sustainability to rural PC kiosk enterprises. We are seeing PC services supporting demand for image/visual services like digital photography and videography and these in turn rake in profits to keep business afloat. With ‘information’ needs in rural contexts still routed through local/traditional channels, the PC kiosk is yet to emerge as an authoritative source providing information. We see opportunity here to rethink the rural PC kiosk as commercially viable and a conduit for ICT’s that are perceived as bringing value in the every day of community life.

Although there are no authoritative studies that quote figures, we estimate that there are roughly 10,000 rural kiosks/shared access telecentres. These ventures have been spreading across India for at least five years, yet to date, few studies have addressed their economic viability.

Multiple players have staked claims to shape the course of kiosk development in the country. Corporates players like n-logue, Drishtee, and ITC’s e-chaupal program have drawn on for-profit business models for long term sustainability. Meanwhile, several non-profits in this space argue for large government funded infrastructural investments. It is doubtful either group factored in the diverse inconsistencies of rural communication ecologies, agri-resources and degrees of urbanity in the 600,000 Indian villages.

Initial studies of this space have hinted at a failure of the general business model (Dhawan 2004, Kumar 2004, Toyama et al 2004)). Building on these previous studies, we suggest a perspective shift to consider the kiosk not simply as an information booth, but rather as diversified entrepreneurial space to tap several commercial possibilities.

Our study of rural kiosks operating in particular social contexts show good evidence of innovative business skills among kiosk operators who respond creatively to these contexts. Burning connectivity issues and power cuts notwithstanding, KO’s display enough imagination to keep their kiosks afloat. In this process, they use desktop PC’s and supporting hardware and software to accommodate the growing demand for services related to visual images and entertainment. They reinterpret conventional uses of kiosk space, and survive by steering kiosk business to meet local consumption patterns. Here, kiosks still remain a shared resource and sometimes turn into village landmarks with great potential to create community value and entrench technology.

We look at rural internet kiosks as shared access centers that offer a range of PC enabled services. A kiosk typically allowed customers, to browse, send mails, chat, offer on-line health consultancy, agri-consultancy, e-governance and on-line university admission. Off-line activities include teaching basic computer courses, digital photos and web-astrology. E-governance services, often available in kiosks, issue relevant government documents and identity certificates to clients digitally, thus saving time, money and rendering the process transparent.

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